Federal Grant to Update UCO Food Sciences

A $149,000 grant awarded to Kanika Bhargava, associate professor in the Human Environmental Sciences Department at the University of Central Oklahoma, is ensuring new opportunities, enhancements and equipment for the department sometime in March.

The U.S. Department of Agriculture’s National Institute of Food and Agriculture awarded Bhargava the grant tited, “Enhancing Food Science Capacity through Transformative Learning Experiences in Education and Research.”

“The products of the current proposal, including higher-quality course curricula and integrated research opportunities, will engage the students and increase interest in pursuing jobs and/or higher education in the food industry,” Bhargava said.

Bhargava said the main objectives of the grant are to enhance the laboratory equipment; integrate research experiments into the curriculum; update the Food Science curriculum to incorporate new courses in food quality and safety leading to the development of a post-graduate certificate; and investigate new technology on nanoemulsion based delivery systems of natural antimicrobials to increase produce safety.

Tawni Holmes, HES associate professor, said since this is a capacity-building grant that will give the department the opportunity to recruit and retain students.

Successful completion of this project will greatly enhance the number and diversity of multidisciplinary professionals trained in nutrition, dietetics, food science and food service management in the US to meet the future need of the food and agriculture sciences workforce, according to Bhagava.

“The most important measurable outcome of the proposed project will be the improvement in student learning through laboratory exercises, food safety workshops and student research projects,” Bhargava said.

Students in the department will have the opportunity to work as research assistants on food safety research, present the research at state and national conferences, and be able to submit their work to peer-reviewed publications with students as co-authors.

Specifically, the Bhargava research group has developed natural antimicrobial nanoemulsion technology. This technology targets the improvement of lettuce and melon safety, which will reduce costs associated with recall and foodborne outbreaks in the produce industry.

“The nanoemulsion technology is a cheap and efficient sterilization agent for food processing and industrial applications, including ingredients that are currently approved by the appropriate regulatory agencies (e.g., FDA, USDA, etc.) for use in medical, agriculture and food applications,” Bhargava said.

Holmes said Bhargava has brought a really nice component to the department because she has such a strong research background.

“Before [Bhargava] we didn’t have a lot of students that chose to do a thesis and now that we have her on our faculty a lot more students are doing thesis projects,” Holmes said.

Bhargava is the principal investigator for this grant and she is now working on fulfilling the grant with Holmes and Hari Kotturi, associate professor in Biology. Throughout this process Bhargava, Holmes and Kotturi have been recruiting undergraduate and graduate research assistants to work on this grant.

“Our goal is to improve the food science instructional and research capacity and capabilities of the multi-disciplinary Nutrition, Dietetics, Food Science and Food Service Management program at UCO,” Bhargava said.

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